Copper Fever

Photo by Stefan Schweihofer, Pixabay

Happy Friday! Today we’re digging into copper with a tour through the Michigan History Museum, located in Lansing, Michigan.  Shiny, versatile copper permeates our lives.  It is in the pans in our kitchens, the pipes in our bathrooms, the electronics in our computers, and the coins in our pockets.  Copper is also responsible for the blue-green in many of our gemstones (think: turquoise, malachite, azurite).  Mix copper with zinc and we get brass.  Blend it with tin and voilà, we have bronze.  Blast it with oxygen and copper morphs into a cool, sea-green.

Copper, Michigan History Museum, Photo by cjverb

The state of Michigan was once a hotbed of copper.  Artifacts dating back some 7,000 years were discovered along the shores of Lake Superior in the Keweenaw Peninsula.  The Native people either scavenged copper nuggets or chiseled raw copper out of stone and shaped it into arrowheads, fishhooks, trinkets and tools.

Fast forward to 1841 when state geologist, Douglass Houghton reported a large cache of copper in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The Chippewa subsequently sold the land to the United States, and in 1843, copper fever rumbled through Michigan.  Miners, investors, and entrepreneurs from across the continent flocked to the U.P. with dreams of mining copper and getting rich quick.  Despite the sale of hundreds of permits sold by the federal government, little mining actually occurred.  The harsh climate, rugged terrain, high cost of transportation, and dangerous mining conditions rained (snowed!) on the copper parade.  It was the rare, lone prospector who found profit.  Instead, only a small number of mining companies reaped the rewards.  Copper fever burned out just three years later, in 1846.  Many fled the chilly U.P., most likely to rush after new treasure in California gold country.

Miners (c1906)-Calumet, MI, Detroit Publishing Co.

In 1913, those miners that remained launched the first major labor strike in Michigan history.  They formed the Western Federation of Miners, and refused to mine copper until their workday was reduced, their wages were increased, and the one-man drill was dismantled and sent packing. Management, in turn, snubbed the union and rejected the notion of removing their new and more efficient equipment.  After 9 contentious months, both parties came to an agreement.  The workday was cut to 8 hours, hourly pay was increased, and the one-man drill remained.

Despite legal opposition from environmental groups and local communities, over 15 billion pounds of copper have been excavated in Michigan since 1845.  If you’d like a more detailed timeline of copper mining in Michigan, click on this link of Michigan Copper Mining.

Photo by Diana Caballero, Pixabay

Fun Coppery Facts:  A US penny has less copper in it than a nickel.  Our beloved one cent piece is copper-plated zinc (only 2.5% copper!).  It was only between the years 1793 to 1837 that the penny was 100% copper.

Wishing you a fun and festive weekend!  I’ll be back next week with more museum bites from the Michigan History Museum.



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Michigan State University Geography Department

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